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DRIVING

Will Germany soon introduce an Autobahn speed limit?

Germany's Autobahn is famous for having stretches with no speed limit. Could this change under a new government?

Drivers on the A1 near Bremen. It's possible that a general speed limit will be introduced under a new German government.
Drivers on the A1 near Bremen. It's possible that a general speed limit will be introduced under a new German government. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

Germans are known for their love of cars, and many people enjoy being able to drive super fast on sections of the Autobahn that have no speed limit at all. 

But with talks underway on a future new government – one that will likely include the Green party as a significant partner – could the highways finally get a general 130km per hour speed limit?

What’s the argument about?

The debate over whether to impose a 130km-an-hour (80 miles) speed limit – Tempolimit– on the Autobahn has been raging in Germany for years. 

Campaigners believe the move would limit CO2 emissions and make roads safer. 

But critics say a speed limit would infringe on people’s right to drive fast – and that the roads in Germany are already safe. 

The German Autobahn is the only stretch of motorway in Europe where many sections don’t have a speed limit, although maximum speeds of 130km per hour are recommended.

READ ALSO: Eight things you never knew about the German Autobahn

A speed limit under a Traffic Light coalition?

Now the dust is settling after the election on Sunday, coalition negotiations are starting. 

The Social Democrats (SPD) won the election with 25.7 percent percent of the vote. The party wants to go into a coalition with the Greens, who came third, and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) who came fourth. This would be called a Traffic Light coalition (ironically) due to the party colours of red, green and yellow. 

We don’t know yet if this constellation will happen. But transport policy will play an important role in the exploratory talks between the parties. 

READ ALSO: Jamaica or Traffic Light? What’s next for Germany and what does it mean?

The Greens have been pushing for an Autobahn speed limit for years. In June, co-leader Robert Habeck told regional radio station BW24 that a speed limit would be immediately brought in by the Green Party if they were voted into power. The Greens gained a lot of ground in the vote – but didn’t quite live up to expectations. 

Chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz’s centre-left SPD won the most votes – and they say they want to bring in a speed limit, too. 

Although the Free Democrats (FDP) are not in favour of a speed limit, they likely won’t put their foot down on this point. 

According to German media site Focus Online, in a Traffic Light coalition, the Greens “would probably demand the Ministry of Transport to implement their anti-car policy nationwide”.

Focus said the Greens’ Cem Özdemir is “already being touted as a candidate for the ministerial post”.

A standard speed limit of 30 km/h in the cities may also be on the cards, as could a speed limit of 80 km/h on rural roads – if the Greens get their way. 

What about a coalition between the CDU/CSU, Greens and FDP?

Even though the CDU/CSU came second in the election with 24.1 percent of the vote, they are still engaging in talks in a bid to form a government.

This so-called Jamaica coalition (named after the black, green and yellow colours of the Jamaican flag) would be made up of the CDU/CSU, Greens and the Free Democrats. Both the CDU/CSU bloc and the FDP are against introducing a general speed limit. 

Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock at a press conference about the coalition talks on Wednesday. The Greens want a general Autobahn speed limit.
Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock at a press conference about the coalition talks on Wednesday. The Greens want a general Autobahn speed limit. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Earlier this summer, head of the CDU and chancellor candidate Armin Laschet even said the idea was “illogical”.

Meanwhile, the CSU’s Andreas Scheuer, who was Transport Minister in the last government (and in the current caretaker government) said recently: “The argument for a general speed limit is a political instrument of war, for some even a fetish.”

READ ALSO: Autobahn speed limits ‘becoming a fetish’

Nevertheless this is one of the most important points for the Greens – and whichever coalition they enter, they will likely demand it. 

According to rumours, FDP leader Christian Lindner has already offered the speed limit to the Greens as a price for their agreement to a Jamaica coalition. 

Watch this space…

What about another grand coalition?

Although it’s not expected, it is possible that the Social Democrats team up with the CDU/CSU once again in a grand coalition. 

In the most recent government – a grand coalition made up of the CDU/CSU as the leading force and the SPD as junior partner – the Social Democrats had tried to push for a speed limit.

So they are divided on this issue. But with the SPD being the more important partner, they would have more leverage. 

Both parties have so far been less enthusiastic about a 30 km per hour speed limit in cities.

READ ALSO: ‘Not always polite but they follow the rules’: The verdict on German drivers

What do Germans think?

According to a poll from earlier this year almost two thirds (64 percent) of Germans are in favour of introducing a general Autobahn speed limit. 

Meanwhile, a survey by the Local Germany in 2019 found that 70 percent of readers rejected the idea of imposing a speed limit.

What do experts say?

Dortmund-based transport expert and researcher Giulio Mattioli said it was “absolutely” time that Germany introduced a general speed limit. 

Germany is the only country in Europe and one of very few worldwide without a motorway speed limit,” he told The Local. “A recent study by the government’s own UBA agency estimates that ‘the introduction of a general speed limit of 130 km/h on motorways would reduce emissions by 1.9 million tonnes CO2-equivalent annually.’

“A speed limit of 100 km/h (as recently introduced in the Netherlands) would even reduce them by 5.4 million tonnes. For comparison, the German government has committed to delivering -5/6 million tonnes reduction in transport-related CO2 per year, every year from now until 2030.

“So a 130km/h speed limit would give us half a year’s worth of CO2 reductions for transport, which is not peanuts.”

He described a speed limit as a “no brainer” because it could also help with safety, like contributing to fewer road deaths and less local air pollution. 

“Some argue that the minority of German drivers who like to drive at very high speed would be inconvenienced, but frankly that’s a very minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things,” he said. “So I see the motorway speed limit as a sort of litmus test for Germany’s transport climate policy: if they can’t even do that, then I am not sure what they will be able to do for reducing emissions to be honest.”

German equivalent of gun control laws?

Mattioli is interested to watch what happens with this debate under a new government. 

If the next coalition is Ampel (Traffic Light) there might be a chance (of a general speed limit) since both SPD and the Greens have it in their manifestos – but the FDP promises not to introduce it, as does the CDU.

“If they do try and introduce it, I expect it will be fought over as a ‘culture war’ by certain sectors of German society and media. Someone said that the Tempolimit debate is the German equivalent of the gun controls debate in the US, and I think there is some truth to that.

“One can see that in the often shaky arguments that Tempolimit opponents put forward, or in how nonchalantly the experience of other countries with motorway speed limits is dismissed.” 

Member comments

  1. I hope the 30 km/hr in the cities is scrapped. It’s nearly impossible to get a car to go that slow without standing on the brake constantly. 40 km/h is far more reasonable.

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DRIVING

COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

Certain countries around Europe have stricter policies than others regarding drinking and driving and harsher punishments for those caught exceeding legal limits. Here's what you need to know.

COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

European countries set their own driving laws and speed limits and it’s no different when it comes to legal drink-drive limits.

While the safest thing to do of course, is to drink no alcohol at all before driving it is useful to know what the limit is in the country you are driving in whether as a tourist or as someone who frequently crosses European borders by car for work.

While some countries, such as the Czech Republic, have zero tolerance for drinking and driving, in others people are allowed to have a certain amount of alcohol in their blood while driving.

However, not only can the rules be different between countries, they are usually stricter for commercial (or bus) drivers and novice drivers as well. Besides that, the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is extremely difficult to estimate, so the old “one beer is ok” standards no longer safely apply.

In the end, the only way to be safe is to avoid consuming alcohol before driving. Any amount will slow reflexes while giving you dangerous higher confidence. According to the UK’s National Health Service, there is no ‘safe’ drinking level.

How is blood alcohol level measured?

European countries mostly measure blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is the amount, in grams, of alcohol in one litre of blood.

After alcohol is consumed, it will be absorbed fast from the stomach and intestine to the bloodstream. There, it is broken down by a liver-produced enzyme.

Each person will absorb alcohol at their own speed, and the enzyme will also work differently in each one.

The BAC will depend on these metabolic particularities as well as body weight, gender, how fast and how much the person drank, their age and whether or not (and how much) they have eaten, and even stress levels at the time.

In other words there are many things that may influence the alcohol concentration.

The only way to effectively measure BAC is by taking a blood test – even a breathalyser test could show different results. Still, this is the measuring unit used by many EU countries when deciding on drinking limits and penalties for drivers.

Here are the latest rules and limits.

Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Croatia

In most EU countries, the limit is just under 0.5g/l for standard drivers (stricter rules could be in place for novice or professional drivers).

This could be exceeded by a man with average weight who consumed one pint of beer (containing 4.2% alcohol) and two glasses of red wine (13% alcohol) while having dinner.

If a person is caught driving with more than 0.8g/l of blood alcohol content in Austria, they can pay fines of up to € 5,900 and to have their license taken for one year in some cases.

In France, if BAC exceeds 0.8g/l, they could end up with a 2-year jail sentence and a € 4,500 fine. In Germany, penalties start at a € 500 fine and a one-month license suspension. In Greece, drunk drivers could face up to years of imprisonment.

In Denmark, first time offenders are likely to have their licences suspended and could be required to go on self-paid alcohol and traffic courses if BAC levels are low. Italy has penalties that vary depending on whether or not the driver has caused an accident and could lead to car apprehension, fines and prison sentences.

In Spain, going over a 1.2g/l limit is a criminal offence that could lead to imprisonment sentences and hefty fines. 

Norway, Sweden, and Poland

In Norway, Sweden, and Poland, the limit for standard drivers is 0.2g/l. It could take a woman with average weight one standard drink, or one can of beer, to reach that level.

Penalties in Norway can start at a one month salary fine and a criminal record. In Poland, fines are expected if you surpass the limit, and you could also have your license revoked and receive a prison sentence.

Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia

The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia have one of the strictest rules in the European Union. There is no allowed limit of alcohol in the blood for drivers.

In the Czech Republic, fines start at € 100 to € 800, and a driving ban of up to one year can be instituted for those driving with a 0.3 BAC level. However, the harshest penalties come if the BAC level surpasses 1 g/l, fines can be up to € 2,000, and drivers could be banned from driving for 10 years and imprisoned for up to three years.

This is intended to be a general guide and reference. Check the current and specific rules in the country you plan to travel to. The easiest and best way to be safe and protect yourself and others is to refrain from drinking alcohol and driving.

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